by Lois Cloarec Hart
Disclaimer#1 - For those who read my first story, 'Coming Home', this is not exactly a sequel. It's more like a companion novel, though some old friends will make appearances.
Disclaimer#2 - If you have a problem with same-sex relationships, this really isn't the story for you as those are my favourite kinds. <g>
Acknowledgements: My thanks to my invaluable, talented and trusty beta readers, Carol and Day. Also to Lisa, my theological consultant-trust me, this heathen needed one (stop nodding so vigorously, Lisa!) And for Jo, who keeps my nose to the grindstone even when I want to go off and play just because she wants more. Thank you to all the readers who took time to let me know what they thought of my initial effort and gave me the confidence to try this again.
The woman's tall, slender body leaned against her apartment door, shoulders slumped in abject misery as she listened to the muted rumble of the elevator closing down the hall. Long after the sounds had died, she pushed herself upright and returned to her living room.
She stood silently amidst the stark elegance of her surroundings, unmoving until a gray and white cat wound himself through her legs. With a slight smile, she stooped and picked up her furry companion.
Stroking his soft pelt, she wandered over to the sliding door that opened onto a small balcony and went outside. From her condominium apartment, she had a superb view of the Bow River winding its way through the valley that followed the curves of the hills she lived on. In the distance, mountains still capped with white even in the late spring, made up the western horizon. Usually she found the breathtaking panorama unfailingly soothing, but this day it did nothing to calm her heart and mind.
Turning back into her apartment, she raised the cat to eye level and said softly, "I sent your buddy away, Spooky."
The cat blinked and she frowned at him, dove gray eyes rebutting her confidant's unspoken criticism. "You know I had to, Mister." Returning the cat to her shoulder, she whispered into his fur, "It was the right thing to do. She doesn't love us, Spook. Least not that way."
When the feline began to squirm, she sighed and set him on the floor. They parted company, the cat heading for his favourite perch on the couch and the woman for her piano in the far corner under the large bay window.
Trailing a long finger over the mahogany sheen of her Baldwin baby grand, she moved around it until she could pull out the bench. Taking a seat, she leaned back against the wall and contemplated the keys for a long moment.
The cat raised his head as he heard the melancholy sounds of Chopin's Prelude in E Minor fill the room. He knew that sound. Tucking himself into a tight circle, he resigned himself to an absence of catnip and keep-away games for the foreseeable future. He'd just have to wait for the livelier music that would signal the lifting of his mistress' spirits again.
Fine ash blonde hair falling over closed eyes, the woman's graceful, skilled fingers coaxed the mournful sounds from her instrument until suddenly she slammed her hands down on the keys, startling her somnolent cat with the discordant cacophony.
Roughly, she closed the lid and stood. "Well Spooky, I told her I had a date tonight. I certainly wouldn't want to be a liar now, would I?"
Not waiting for an answer the woman strode to the phone and punched in a number. She waited, an oddly haunted look tightening her mouth in tense lines.
"Cass?" The woman winced at the burst of triumphant laughter in her ear. "Yes, I know what I said last time. Look, are you up for some company tonight?"
She rubbed the fine furrow that had appeared in her forehead and pinched the bridge of her straight, narrow nose as she listened. Her voice somber, she answered the expected questions. "No, I haven't forgotten. Yes, I'm leaving now and yes, I remember your favourite brand."
Hanging up the phone abruptly, the woman glanced over at her cat. "Guess you'll have to look after yourself tonight, Spook." Grabbing her bag and slinging it over her shoulder, she stopped to deposit an affectionate caress on her pet. "You be good and I'll see you in the morning."
Wistful eyes regarded the animal as he stretched and purred. With a whispered, "I'm sorry", the woman turned and walked out.
Rhiannon Davies fumbled with her heavy grocery bag, trying to balance it in one arm as she slung her gym bag over the opposite shoulder. Glancing down the street, she saw no sign of her bus as she walked along the front of the plaza. She'd just reached the end of the sidewalk when someone hurrying around the corner slammed into her.
The young woman's small body flew back and the bag crashed to the ground. Dazed, Rhi heard her assailant gasp, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry. I wasn't looking where I was going."
Hands reached down to help as Rhi stumbled to her feet. She stared at the oranges rolling over the sidewalk and then up into a familiar face. She blinked at the gray eyes studying her worriedly.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Ms. Havers. No harm done." Kneeling to gather her scattered groceries, Rhi missed the puzzled look on the other woman's face.
As the tall blonde also knelt to help with the recovery process she asked, "Do I know you, Miss?"
"I work for Mr. Owen," Rhi mumbled as she quickly stuffed her groceries into rumpled brown bag.
"Oh, of course," the woman replied uncertainly, but Rhi knew she didn't remember, and why should she? Rhi had been at the firm of McGregor, Cohen and Kurst for almost two years but had worked exclusively for Len Owen in that time. She had a speaking acquaintance with Ms Havers' legal assistant, Marian Blake, but had never had any interaction with the lawyer herself.
Rhi stood, awkwardly holding her bag while the other woman tucked the last couple of items into the top. Seeing her bus coming, Rhi hastily nodded her thanks and hurried to her stop. Once she was seated, she glanced back at the plaza in time to see Ms Havers disappearing into the liquor store. Shaking her head, the girl decided that their collision had been an appropriate end to a very bad day.
Leaning back and watching the city streets pass, Rhi contemplated the news she'd been given earlier that day. Her boss had called her into his office to tell her that he would be leaving the firm in two weeks to take up a position in Vancouver. A considerate man, he'd hastened to assure her that a position would be found for her with one of the other lawyers and in the meantime, she could work as a floater until a permanent spot opened up.
Outwardly accepting the news with her customary equanimity, Rhi had nonetheless been distraught at the thought of changing bosses. Never a people person at the best of times, she'd come to trust Len Owen. He'd been patient, amiable and appreciative, and they'd forged a good working relationship over the two years she'd been with him. She'd even grown fond of the burly man who'd been unfailingly kind to her and she would miss his cheerful presence.
Sighing, Rhiannon wondered which of the over two hundred lawyers in the firm she'd be assigned to. Resolutely, she reminded herself that it really didn't matter. She was good at her job and would adapt. After all, if things worked out, she wouldn't be there much longer anyway.
A slight smile crossed her lips at that thought and cheered, Rhi's thoughts turned to the woman she'd bumped into. She didn't socialize much with her fellow legal assistants, but she couldn't help overhearing the gossip in the coffee room as the assistants dissected and occasionally mocked their bosses.
Marian, Ms Havers' assistant, was a gregarious woman, and Rhi had often heard her talk about the blonde lawyer. She'd gotten the impression that Ms Havers was a fair but demanding boss with little tolerance for mistakes. Judging by Marion's complaints about overtime, she was also something of a workaholic but Rhi also remembered Marion describing Ms Havers' intervention when a disgruntled client had verbally attacked the assistant. Rhiannon knew that some lawyers simply let their legal assistants take the heat from angry clients as a condition of their employment, though she was grateful that Mr. Owen hadn't been like that.
Rhi had little to do with the immigration section that Marion worked in as Mr. Owen specialized in corporate law, but she heard enough office scuttlebutt to know that Marion's boss was considered on the fast track for partnership.
Noticing her stop was next, Rhi stood and carefully made her way to the middle exit. Once the bus stopped, she stepped out on the street and began her trek home. The neighbourhood through which she walked was not one of white picket fences and lush green lawns. Though not rundown enough to be considered a slum, it showed clear evidence of decline. Houses that eighty years ago would have been solid working class homes, now sagged and peeled, neglected by landlords who couldn't be bothered to put extra money into their property.
Rhi glanced nervously across the street as she approached her house. She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw that the King brothers and their cronies were mercifully absent. Winters were usually quiet on her street but spring and summer brought the thuggish brothers out into their filthy, littered yard to lounge on their motorbikes and drink beer with their buddies to the raucous sounds of cranked up boom boxes.
Neighbours had long ago learned to stay out of the brothers' way. Mrs. Greeley had called in a noise complaint to the police two years ago only to have most of her windows mysteriously broken, garbage strewn about her yard, and her small Corgi hung from her mailbox two nights later. When the police came to question the King brothers in the matter, their buddies had provided alibis. The neighbours, who'd gathered hopefully when the police arrived, helplessly watched the officers drive off while the brothers laughed and sneered. Since then, Mrs. Greeley had moved away and everyone else played deaf, dumb and blind while the brothers lorded it over their small kingdom.
Rhiannon kept her head down and hurried to the gate leading into her yard. The house had changed little in the decade since a frightened eleven-year-old had been brought here and dumped into her aunt's unwilling custody. A shotgun house, the narrow two-storey building hadn't been painted in the years the young woman had lived here. Faded yellow paint had eroded over time and half the pickets were broken off in the fence. Patches of thin grass fought a losing battle against weeds and bare, beaten earth. A dirty white plastic flowerpot that hadn't seen blossoms in five years leaned crookedly beside the front door.
Long inured to her surrounding, Rhi ignored the squalor and unlocked the front door. Pushing her way in, she winced at the sound of voices coming from the front room, what her aunt grandly called 'the parlor'. Fervently hoping she could sneak by quietly, she almost groaned aloud when she heard her aunt call, "Anne!"
Turning reluctantly, she saw her aunt standing in the doorway, clutching the arm of a tall, weedy man she'd never seen before. For a long moment she eyed the stranger, struck by the sheer homeliness of the man. Well over six feet and spare to the point of skinniness, he had thinning blond hair, deep-set pale blue eyes and a prominent Adam's apple. Wire rim glasses perched on a prominent beak and he instantly reminded her of a caricaturized Ichabod Crane.
Glancing past him and her aunt's bulk, she could see the other three members of the 'henhouse,' as she inwardly termed her aunt's closest friends, clustered in the parlor. Sighing, she concentrated on her aunt, knowing she wouldn't be able to make her escape until she met the woman's demands.
"Anne, I want you to meet our new priest, David Ross. Father David, this is my dear niece, Anne."
Rhi could hear the syrupy sweetness in her aunt's tones that signaled 'loving aunt' mode. She nodded stiffly at the Anglican priest who smiled gently at her.
"It's nice to meet you, Anne," the tall man began before Rhi cut him off abruptly.
"It's Rhiannon," the young woman informed him bluntly.
The man's pale eyebrows rose in surprise but Rhi had to grudgingly admit that he recovered quickly. In street clothes, without the collar, he looked almost human.
"Rhiannon then," Father David continued courteously. "I've been looking forward to meeting you. Your aunt speaks so highly of you."
Rhi held back a snort of disbelief and caught the warning glitter in her aunt's cold, flat eyes. Forcing herself to be polite, she said, "Nice to meet you too, Father. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get these groceries put away."
"May I give you a hand?" the tall man offered, reaching for the grocery bag.
Instinctively backing up, Rhiannon shook her head. "No thanks. I'll take care of it." She could see his puzzlement, but had no intention of sticking around any longer.
She turned and began to climb the narrow flight of stairs only to hear the man call out, "I hope I'll see you again soon, Rhiannon."
Rhi would have laughed at that but, mindful of her aunt's presence, only replied, "Not this Sunday I'm afraid."
Continuing her climb, she heard her aunt let out a resigned sigh. "I'm afraid my niece is something of a lost sheep, Father David. I haven't been able to convince her to come with me for years now, though God knows I try!"
The young woman grimaced as she reached the landing and turned down the hall to her bedroom. Compulsory church attendance had been one of her aunt's numerous bewildering rules when she'd been fobbed off on the older woman so many years ago. It was only when Rhi had begun her job with the legal firm and started paying rent that she'd put her foot down. The fact that her aunt's world revolved around her church was enough in itself to turn Rhiannon permanently against the institution.
Reaching her bedroom door, she set the gym bag and groceries down and dug her keys out of her pocket. The padlock had been a non-negotiable item when she agreed to alter her household status to paying tenant. Picking up her bags, she entered her sanctuary.
The room had been done in wallpaper that had once featured broad maroon stripes now faded into a dark background. Two narrow windows with yellowed blinds pulled halfway down opened up on a view of the back alley. Not large to begin with, the room seemed even smaller as an ancient fridge and a squat legless bureau that had been found in a garage sale years ago dominated one wall. A frayed blue bedspread was neatly drawn over the single bed set against the adjoining wall next to a closet, which held Rhi's modest wardrobe. Under the windows, an old wooden kitchen table held a second-hand microwave, a battered electric wok, two covered cardboard boxes and a stack of library books.
Though clean, the bedroom projected an impoverished, defeated air. An objective onlooker might ask whether the occupant of this chamber could ever even dream of aspiring to more than her current station, until the eye was drawn to two incongruous features.
A bright rag rug covered half the floor, bespeaking a fierce rebellion against the somber surroundings, and on every patch of bare wall a drawing was pinned. Often on nothing more than brown scrap paper, and many curling with age, the drawings were exquisite pencil and charcoal renderings of people, animals and mythical creatures.
A closer examination revealed the recurrence of two figures in many of the pictures. A laughing man with dark, curly hair was paired with a petite lighter haired woman who smiled up at him with adoring eyes. The young woman now unloading her groceries looked remarkably like the woman in the picture except that her eyes were the shape and shade of the man's, without his joyful insouciance.
Rhiannon finished putting away her purchases, but left the milk out. Crossing to the table, she opened one box and pulled out a bowl and spoon. Digging out cereal from her dry goods in the other box, she poured her supper, covered it with milk and sat down on the room's single straight-backed chair to eat, idly contemplating the dilapidated and wheel-less car in the yard across the alley.
She'd long ago decided that sparse meals were a small price to pay in order to avoid her aunt's kitchen. She managed fine with what she had and since she was responsible for the cost of her own groceries, her aunt couldn't protest the arrangement.
Finishing her meal, she took her dishes and gym bag down the hall to the bathroom. Snagging her towel and bathing suit from the bag, she hung them over the shower rod. Rinsing her dishes in the sink, she glanced up at her reflection. Perpetually wary eyes looked back at her. A lover might have raved about their cobalt depths but Rhiannon had never allowed anyone that close. Cut practically short, light brown hair with rich gold highlights framed a gamine-like face. A splash of freckles across an upturned nose might have labeled her as cute except for the stubborn tilt to her small square chin. Even inside the walls of her home, her short wiry frame never relaxed its air of aloofness. Spine straight and shoulders taut, she wordlessly projected her hard-learned distrust of the world.
After drying her dish and spoon, Rhi returned to her room, carefully locking the door behind her. She had heard the drone of voices downstairs and knowing her aunt's fondness for talking people's ears off, smirked a little in sympathy for the captive priest.
Replacing her things in their box, she walked over to her closet and opened the bottom drawer of the bureau. Extracting a bankbook, she crossed to her bed. Snapping on the naked overhead bulb, she lay down and opened the well-thumbed book to the last page with printing on it. She stared at the balance, admiring the four figures and longing for the day they rolled over into the magic five. With every payday her dream drew a little closer, and safe within her locked room, she allowed herself the luxury of dreaming of that day she'd been working toward for so long.
David made his exit after awkwardly disengaging from the oppressive clutches of the women. Sighing, he accepted that he'd yet to be assigned to a church that didn't house these types, outwardly devout but in reality much more interested in social than spiritual matters.
Shaking off the stultifying after-effects of an hour in their company, he reached the front gate and gratefully made his way down the sidewalk. His church and the rectory where he lived were only a few blocks away, deeper into the inner city. As he walked, he considered the evening and more specifically, Hettie Walker's niece.
Just this side of hostile, the young woman had been an enigma. Her intelligent, penetrating eyes had held a deep reticence, but he sensed that was their usual state and not directed specifically at him. He wondered what had caused such wariness in one so young and felt a budding compassion for the troubled girl.
He grinned as he thought of how his old mentor would gently chide him for finding yet another stray, but his instincts, proven through over two decades of service in some of the roughest assignments in the western provinces and northern territories, had yet to steer him wrong.
Mrs. Walker had deflected his initial attempt to inquire about her niece, sighing deeply as if her lot was simply too much to bear. Her friends had clucked in agreement, offering sympathy and accolades in a well-practiced drill for the heroic way she'd born the burden of her niece's upbringing over the years.
David had let the subject drop, but his inquisitive mind refused to let the memory of those dark, suspicious eyes go. Knowing he'd only get one very slanted side from Hettie's crew, he wondered who might be able to give him the whole story. Tupper! If anyone would know, it would be the ancient, garrulous sexton who did everything around the church from sweeping floors to setting out hymnals.
Deep in his thoughts, David stepped off the curb without looking and barely avoided being hit by a car whose angry driver signaled his outrage in no uncertain terms. Sighing, he chastised himself for his lack of attention, well aware that he was prone to lose sight of the outer world while he wandered happily in his inner one. Determined to at least make it back to his rectory in one piece, he carefully checked the street before starting across it again.
Across town, a tall blonde woman stopped before an apartment door and drew a deep breath. Not allowing herself time to reconsider, she knocked rapidly and waited. Several long minutes later the door swung open. Cass leaned against the frame and eyed her visitor for long moments before smirking and holding out her hand.
Marika handed over the brown bag and when Cass checked the contents said quietly, "It's Walker Cardhu."
Cass grinned triumphantly. "Aw, you're such a good girl."
Marika eyed the woman as she twisted the cap off the scotch, wondering again why she'd come but knowing she wouldn't leave. She'd tried to stay away before and Cass never made any attempt to coax her back. The woman tilting the bottle back to thin lips knew she'd return on her own eventually.
Studying the other woman, Marika shook her head. Cass was almost stunningly commonplace. Of average height and size, with medium brown hair and regular features, she'd never stand out in a crowd unless one looked at her eyes. A hungry, predatory, manic expression filled those muddy brown orbs, eyes that always reminded Marika of the old footage of Charles Manson.
Giving an involuntary shiver, she was about to push past Cass when she heard the sound of women's laughter coming from within. Halting abruptly, she turned to the other woman who regarded her with an insolent grin.
"You didn't tell me you had company," Marika said with a frown.
Cass shrugged indifferently. "So what?"
Marika retreated to the hall and Cass made no move to stop her. The two stared at each other until finally Cass turned and called into the apartment, "You two get your asses out of here. I got a lady to entertain."
Loud complaints sounded until Cass turned and took a few steps inside. Her voice dropped to a snarl. "Don't make me tell you twice!" Within moments two women stumbled by Marika's averted eyes and down the hall. As she turned to enter the apartment she heard one of them say to her friend, "She don't mean shit, Kendra. She's just another of Cass' stable. You watch, we'll be back here before Monday."
Wincing, Marika stepped inside the apartment and quietly closed the door behind her.
Continued in Chapter 2
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